On this day 50 years ago: ...

August 17th 1969: Drawing on contemporaneous reports, Donnacha Ó Beacháin describes the day’s events as they unfolded

Belfast remains on the brink of full-scale civil war. There is an official information vacuum and it has been filled by rumours, which swirl through the city at alarming speed.

The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association has established Radio Free Belfast and is calling for help. Protection rackets have sprung up in some areas still not policed by troops with Catholics being charged to get to their homes if passing through predominantly Protestant streets.

As makeshift ambulances operated by civil rights activists drive through the barricades people plead to be taken away, anywhere. Refugees continue to stream out of the city leaving behind the endless barricades and boarded-up homes carrying what they can of their personal belongings in suitcases and bundles. Travel is not easy, however, given the absence of public transport and all travel by plane or ship has been booked out for several days.

In Belfast, prime minister Chichester-Clark has tried to dampen expectations of a major overhaul of current constitutional arrangements that would see London playing a more direct role in Northern Ireland.


Yesterday, the Irish conflict came to London as more than 2,000 people fought pitched battles outside the Ulster Office for nearly three hours with several hundred police including many on horseback.

British newspapers are currently unavailable in most of Ireland as Aer Lingus loaders have refused to handle them because of what they consider the biased coverage of events in the North. The Sunday Times described the situation as “a dangerous muddle” that could only be resolved by increasing Westminster’s powers at the expense of Stormont’s. The Sunday Express claimed there was “no question” of Britain assuming responsibility for “Ulster”.

In the Sunday Telegraph, deputy editor Peregrine Worsthorne, describes Northern Ireland as “essentially a colonial problem, like Rhodesia” and adds: “In many ways … the Irish today are more strange and outside our ken than the Indians and the Africans. Ireland was the beginning of Britain’s long imperial withdrawal. That was where our pattern was set - our will to rule decisively broken, therefore less suited to a return of British bayonets. Geographically, of course, nothing could be easier. But historically and emotionally, St. George’s Channel is the widest sea of all”.

Large numbers of Northern holidaymakers in the Republic - many of whom are here to avoid the Orange marching season - are confused about how things fare in their localities. Some have learned that relatives have evacuated their homes. Others fear reprisals. Speaking on condition of anonymity two Derry girls said: “we work for Protestants and don’t know if we will get our jobs back on Monday morning. We are afraid that the Protestant girls in the office won’t speak to us now, and we have been good friends for years”.

Thousands of soldiers from Army units are now directly involved in the force’s “Operation Assist” at bases established at strategic points around the Border, transporting food, beds and blankets to evacuee and field hospitals. Gardaí have instructed gun dealers in Cavan and Monaghan to remove all firearms and ammunition from their shops as a precaution against raids.

The number of refugees decreased somewhat yesterday as men who had brought their wives and children to safety returned to the North. Hundreds more have taken refuge with relatives south of the border.

At 8.45 yesterday morning the first baby to a refugee family was delivered in Mullingar County Hospital. The mother, Mrs Margaret Ferron from Belfast gave birth to her daughter, Michelle, within hours of arriving to the town. The Irish Red Cross has appealed for toys, comics, magazines, knitting wool, needles, books and other recreational equipment for the hundreds of refugees now accommodated in the Republic. As many refugees have made hurried escapes clothing is also appreciated.


At Sunday service at St. Fin Barre's Cathedral, Rev Frederick Johnston, Dean of Cork tells the congregation: "Today, one is ashamed to be termed a Protestant, and we repudiate the so-called Protestant spirit that deliberately sets out to suppress and intimidate, that allows and encourages ghettos within cities and victimises men and women because of their religious or political convictions". He contrasts the treatment of the Protestant minority in the Republic where "we have been fairly and honourably treated as first class citizens" with 50 years of Unionist and Protestant Government in the North which "had produced the present holocaust".

As this unprecedented week draws to a close, many have taken stock of the toll of human suffering. Eight people dead, hundreds injured, and thousands homeless or displaced. While the older generation can remember the Troubles of almost 50 years ago, television has provided an immediacy and intimacy with recent events.

The Northern Ireland government survives but its legitimacy and credibility has been greatly undermined. The forces of the state no longer patrol large sections of the community and some districts have effectively become “no-go” areas. Will the RUC or B-Specials be able to enter nationalist neighbourhoods ever again? London has been keen to stress that the deployment of British troops is, in terms of scale and duration, a limited operation. But what is the exit strategy and whom do they serve? Many Catholics have welcomed the British Army as protectors from the hated RUC and B-Specials but they have come at the request of the Unionist Government to aid the civil authorities.

While the barricades may be taken down the emotional barriers that have been erected this week could take much longer to dismantle. The two communities have increasingly separated from each other but can they find a way to live together? Many moderates have now been converted to extremists. The coming months and years will establish whether this conversion is permanent.

* Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Associate Professor at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University. He is author of the book From Partition to Brexit: the Irish Government and Northern Ireland.